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Albany's tax-cap gimmick

New York Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo, center, speaks

New York Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo, center, speaks during a news conference as Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie (D-Bronx), left, and Senate Majority Leader John Flanagan (R-Smithtown) listen in the Red Room at the Capitol on Thursday, June 25, 2015, in Albany. Photo Credit: AP / Mike Groll

Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo and state legislative leaders would have you believe that they just approved "property tax cuts for homeowners," as described in their joint announcement of an end-of-session deal last week.

Don't believe them.

What Cuomo and the legislature actually agreed to do in last week's session-ending "Big Ugly" deal is to redistribute $3 billion in state revenue to homeowners over the next four years in the form of property tax rebate checks -- the first of which will be cynically timed for delivery just before the 2016 election.

This temporary program will supersede the three-year, $1.5 billion "property tax freeze" credit program enacted at Cuomo's behest just a year ago. And it will come on top of the $3.4 billion in personal income tax revenues the state already redistributes ever year through the STAR property tax homestead exemption, which dates to the late 1990s.

Your property taxes will not actually drop at all as a result of this gambit. Instead, a couple hundred of the thousands of dollars you already send to Albany will flutter back to you -- temporarily.

The latest tax gimmick grew out of Cuomo's budget proposal earlier this year for a bigger property tax "circuit breaker," whose cost would have reached $1.7 billion by 2019. Under that program, about half of the homeowners in the state would have qualified for a personal income tax credit. But Senate Republicans preferred to revive something more like the universal STAR rebate, which was enacted in 2006 and repealed during the fiscal crisis of 2009.

The result is an inefficient hybrid of two bad ideas: a state income tax credit masquerading as a local property tax rebate. Like STAR, it is designed to temporarily dull the pain of high property taxes without actually doing anything to address the underlying causes -- state mandates that make it harder for local governments to reduce and restructure their high costs. And like STAR, it goes to homeowners only. Businesses and owners of multifamily dwellings need not apply.

With the state forecasting budget gaps starting in 2017, how will this new gimmick be paid for? Cuomo intends to draw the money from "surpluses" he's pledged to create by holding spending growth to 2 percent a year. But assuming the cash will be available, it could more productively be spent as a down payment on permanent state tax relief, or to fill gaping holes in infrastructure plans, or to catch up on the state's deferred pension contributions.

There is one piece of truly good news: The state's property tax cap will be extended until at least mid-2020.

Cuomo and Senate Republicans had promised to push for a permanent tax cap -- a priority that somehow got lost in their end-of-session maneuvering over New York rent control laws and other issues. But the cap's extension -- with minimal administrative tweaks -- is the next best thing. The longer it stays in effect, and the more accustomed to its benefits property owners become, the harder it will be to dislodge.

While rebates are a transparent political ploy, Cuomo's tax cap is the real deal -- the most significant step New York has taken to bring about a real, long-term reduction in relative property tax burdens. Compared with average school tax growth during 30 years before the cap's enactment, property owners have saved $7.6 billion in the last four years.

Unfortunately, even as they profess their commitment to property tax relief, state legislators in both parties this year continued to introduce costly new mandates and pass pension benefit sweeteners for some public employees.

State mandate help, not a state tax subsidy, remains the missing link needed to deliver true, lasting property tax relief.